On the Fourth of July, CNN managed to out-petty the president, further corrode its credibility, and kick-start the Trump 2020 ground game in one fell swoop. After President Trump tweeted a modified GIF of himself at an old pro-wrestling match, in which he is seen clobbering a man with the CNN logo superimposed on his head, CNN chose the low road. Rather than denounce the president’s tweet as unpresidential and move on with actual journalism, the network instead had a public, 72-hour meltdown, which included an inane hunt to punish the creator of the meme that apparently originated on r/The_Donald, a pro-Trump Internet forum on Reddit.
On Wednesday, CNN published an article by Andrew Kaczynski titled “How CNN found the Reddit user behind the Trump wrestling GIF,” describing in scrupulous detail how the “KFile” team unearthed the identity of the user “HanA**holeSolo,” who created the GIF. “Using identifying information that ‘HanA**holeSolo’ posted on Reddit,” Kaczynski wrote, “KFile was able to determine key biographical details, to find the man’s name using a Facebook search and ultimately corroborate details he had made available on Reddit.”
In his article, Kaczynski explained that because the Reddit user gave a lengthy apology and seemed genuinely remorseful, he would not identify or dox him, i.e., Kaczynski would not release private or identifying information about the Reddit denizen. But, he warned, “CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.”
Addicted to asserting their diminishing control over public rhetoric, CNN single-handedly gave Trump a reason to moan about the network’s agenda to his heart’s content. As Kevin Williamson has so eloquently noted, in his constant need for media attention Trump resembles a junkie running dry. So, too, CNN, which is so hooked on drama that is has threatened to ruin a private citizen who criticizes or mocks the network.
But beyond the network’s feud with Trump, this approach is destined to backfire. There’s a generation of kids barely starting college, fluent in the language of the Internet since birth, that can smell any desperation for social control. They’re Generation Z, the post-Millennial generation born after 1997, and polling and cultural observation shows that they will vehemently fight against the mainstream media’s gasping attempts to determine the contours of the political and social order. Millennials, who grew up without the evils of Communism in their daily lives, felt the echoes of lingering sexism and anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination. Gen Z did not. Now, women are graduating college at higher rates than men and are expected to possess the same professional ambitions as men. Gay marriage is now recognized in all 50 states, and, according to a 2015 Pew research study, the overwhelming majority of Millennial Republicans and Democrats are supportive of this fact. Once, rebels took bong rips in between protesting war and Jim Crow laws; today they “sh*tpost” memes and fight against a different form of social control: political correctness and a perceived establishment agenda. Seemingly overnight, the culture wars have radically new goalposts, and increasingly feature 4chan memes rather than paid political ads as ammunition.
It has become crystal clear that CNN still has no clue why Hillary and the establishment lost. Much of the post-election reflection has focused on Trump’s popularity with the white working class, with whom the president’s populism and protectionism resonated. Most, however, have ignored the reactionary post-Millennials who, despite holding liberal values on many issues, voted en masse for Trump. (A Hispanic Heritage Foundation study backed up the voting data, which was limited to only the oldest of Gen Z. Their findings: of 50,000 teenagers, Trump would beat Clinton by 15 percent.)
After Trump’s Sunday WWE tweet, Washington discovered the r/The_Donald subreddit — population: nearly 446,000 users — on Reddit, which is ranked the eighth most visited website in the world, according to the Alexa online-traffic rankings. The largest pro-Trump groups on Facebook have less than a quarter of r/The_Donald’s fan base, yet CNN and Buzzfeed lost their minds over the fake-news clickbait that populated pro-Trump Facebook groups read by older Americans, rather than the memes and posts about Trump on Reddit. When Pepe frogs and “Kekistan” flags were discussed, the New York Times and the like wrote them off as symbols of racism and bigotry rather than rebellion and antiestablishmentarianism. While a great deal of “sh*tposting” actually was anti-Semitic, racist, or homophobic, a lot of it was the product of teenagers being upset with a suffocating politically correct status quo.
In either case, ignoring Reddit was a massive journalistic mistake, as its expansive, young audience has a colorful and potentially indicative political history. Having initially featured a solid-blue bent, the site took a sharp turn against then-President Obama after Edward Snowden revealed the NSA was conducting mass domestic surveillance on the American public. Soon the site’s left-leaning r/politics group was removed from the site’s default subscription list, and the homepage as a whole became increasingly democratized, determined by how many “upvotes” a post has, rather than if it belonged to a preordained set of “subreddits.”
For Gen Z, Trump’s proposed border wall and his propensity to grill the media are symbols of heterodoxy it believes the establishment wrongly persecutes as heresies.
The birth and explosion of r/The_Donald’s community provides insight into the self-described high-energy base of Trump’s 2020 ground game. While Hillary had data-specified messaging, Trump had Michigan and a growing vanguard of teenagers, “redpilled” to rip the establishment through memes on Reddit and sometimes problematic 4chan boards. Once the party of the young, the Democratic party is now miles behind in terms of messaging — not because the official GOP has a much better slogan than “I mean, have you seen the other guys?” but because it is able to leave the messaging to teenage masters of the language of the Web.
In its pathetic threat to dox and destroy an individual redditor because the president happened to glean his dumb GIF, CNN woke a dangerous dragon. The hashtag “#CNNBlackmail” trended on Twitter for nearly all of Wednesday. The top of Reddit’s homepage featured a meme with a frowning Reddit mascot head superimposed on the body of Otto Warmbier being dragged by North Korean guards, faces replaced by the CNN logo. The subreddit from which it came? The newly popular CNN Memes.
Trumpism may represent an aberration for the Republican party, but his success with post-Millennials indicates that their rightward shift is far more reactionary than the working-class support he received in return for more populist policies. For Gen Z, Trump’s proposed border wall and his propensity to grill the media are symbols of heterodoxy it believes the establishment wrongly persecutes as heresies. The moderators of r/The_Donald strongly police racist or otherwise bigoted slurs, but they defend HanA**holeSolo as a member of the antiestablishment “thot patrol” rather than an individual who had a previous history of posting the n-word and anti-Semitic messages. (That he is, indeed, a bigot cannot be used as the justification for CNN’s witch hunt, because the network began hunting down HanA**holeSolo prior to knowing this history.)
Flagrant disregard for journalistic ethics aside, CNN’s decision to withhold HanA**holeSolo’s identity if and only if he does not criticize the network publicly ever again was a grave strategic error. By waging war on innocuous, childish trollery, CNN has positioned itself as an establishment, oppressive figure, allowing Trump to perform the role of the people’s champion even when merely tweeting out petty, unpresidential memes.
With “Fraud News CNN” replacing “Crooked Hillary” as Trump’s enemy of choice, the president doesn’t have to stand for anything. Trump simply has to stand against them, and Gen Z will follow the course.